Knowledge, Awareness and Understanding



David Gurteen

First Published

May 2003


Knowledge Management; Awareness; Understanding

Knowledge Management has focused on the management of information and knowledge in the belief that if we have more knowledge, better quality knowledge and more accessible knowledge then we will do our jobs better. This is simply not true. We need more than just improved information and the right knowledge. What we need is better awareness and understanding.
Lets say we had perfect information and knowledge - all stored in a single, large, easily accessible database. Lets say we also had experts with perfect knowledge who were readily available and with whom we could easily talk. Perfect! What ever we wanted to know, we could obtain. It was there at our fingertips. Would it really make that much difference?

Let me give you a quote from Michael Schrage:

"I think "knowledge management" is a bullshit issue. Let me tell you why. I can give you perfect information, I can give you perfect knowledge and it won't change your behavior one iota. People choose not to change their behavior because the culture and the imperatives of the organization make it too difficult to act upon the knowledge. Knowledge is not the power. Power is power. The ability to act on knowledge is power. Most people in most organizations do not have the ability to act on the knowledge they possess. End of story."

Or lets put it another way - as a business development manager from BT in a KM presentation observed to me:

"Knowledge Management should be about liberating people to think - not all this technology stuff".

Or a more down to earth comment still from a business consultant I invited along to a recent KM conference:

"David - this KM business is really just a load of 'bollocks'. It does not address the quality of the decision-making! What is the point of having all this KM stuff in place if people still make lousy decisions - or if they don't use it or if they do the wrong thing - even exceptionally well? They would do better to do the right thing very badly and not bother with KM at all!"

Or again from a different angle - recently in the Culture section of The Sunday Times I found a fascinating article on creative writing by the author Joanna Trollope. This is how the article starts:

"I am always fascinated by the idea of creative-writing courses. I completely accept that you can teach the craft, that you can give instruction how to structure a book, how to vary the pace and tension, how to write dialogue. But what you can't teach, it seems to me, is the right kind of observation or the right kind of interpretation of what has been observed. It worries me to think of all those earnest pupils who have diligently mastered the mechanics, wondering with varying degrees of misery and rage why the finished recipe just somehow hasn't worked."

Yes we can have information, yes we can have knowledge and yes we can have mastered the mechanistic skills to do our jobs but then why do we still screw up?

The problem is that we focus too much on the mechanics of business life and in Joanna Trollope's words - not enough on "observation and interpretation” or in my words not enough on "awareness and understanding"

In short, even if we made perfect knowledge available there is no guarantee that we will understand it any better or make wiser decisions or put it to productive use.
The problem is that we 'tune out' what we don't wish to hear. We ignore information that does not seem relevant or does not fit our preconceived ideas. We assume we have the answers and look no further. We refuse to talk to other people in case they question our decisions. We override them when they do. In short we are arrogant and ignorant and not blissfully not aware of it.

There are no single solutions to problems such as these but one element is too often missed and that is the role of conversation.

There are two barriers to conversation. First, we do not listen to each other. Second, we do not say what we think. We do not tell the ‘truth’ – we do not effectively communicate our different perceptions. If we wish to improve our knowledge and make it productive there is one fundamental thing that we need to learn to do and that is to converse openly. This will raise our awareness and our understanding of our organizational world and all that follows will benefit.

But let me leave you with one last quotation from David Weinberger - one of the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto –

“But the real problem with the information being provided to us in our businesses is that, for all the facts and ideas, we still have no idea what we're talking about. We don't understand what's going on in our business, our market, and our world.

In fact, it'd be right to say that we already *know* way too much. KM isn't about helping us to know more. It's about helping us to understand. Knowledge without understanding is like, well, information.”

So, how do we understand things? From the first accidental wiener roast on a prehistoric savannah, we've understood things by telling stories. It's through stories that we understand how the world works.”

Video: Talk with David Gurteen about his Knowledge Cafe in Amsterdam 2009

Media Information: Image

If you are interested in Knowledge Management, the Knowledge Café or the role of conversation in organizational life then you my be interested in this online book I am writing on Conversational Leadership
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